Review: Animal Eye

Poetry by Paisley Rekdal,  Animal Eye

University of Georgia Press
Reviewed by W.M. Lobko

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Paisley Rekdal opens her fourth book of poetry with the following salvo: “And then I thought, Can I have more / of this, would it be possible / for every day to be a greater awakening, more light / more light…” This is a limber, confident announcement that whatever domestic or intimate settings this volume explores, it will not be constrained by them. The poem, “Why Some Girls Love Horses,” goes on to relay the narrative of an accident with a horse when the speaker was young; it confirms for the reader that we too  will need to grab “the dirty short hank / of mane… on Dandy’s neck / … white flanks flecked green / with shit and the satin of his dander, / the livingness, the warmth of all that blood just under the skin…”. Through rhythm and lineation, Rekdal acquaints us immediately with the long stride and languorous reach of her voice, but also always avoids letting the narrative line go slack. We are in for quite a ride.

Not a mounted one, however. Animal Eye can indeed feel at times like a passing menagerie of creatures great and small—there are prominent appearances by the anemone, the octopus, the fox, the bat ray, the sun bear, a collection of brash and famished lemurs, a caribou herd, spawning salmon, & one unforgettable tiger. Still, it is significant that in this volume, the animal is not positioned as an alien “other” life with which the speaker really trafficks or interacts. Unlike the encounters—confrontations, even—in poems such as Stanley Kunitz’s “The Wellfleet Whale,” Mark Doty’s “Source,” Sylvia Plath’s bee poems, or, more recently, Stephanie Pippin’s poems in The Messenger, Rekdal’s meetings with the animal world are informed with admiration but also a sense of confirmed separation. Our fundamental humanness is a given, and not something that requires questioning or will yield much further understanding. In this way, Rekdal’s animals are vehicles for thinking about hungers, desires, thoughts, memories, and hurts that are distinctly human; the (idea of the) animal is a tool or occasion to be used in other investigations (familial, interpersonal, philosophical). See, for instance, the bald statements that round out “A Small, Soul-Colored Thing,” a vision poem in which the speaker observes a dog and a deer play out their instinctual roles before horribly morphing into hunter and hunter, alive and dead: “And I watched it. / I was the human that could watch it. I was the small, soul-colored thing that wouldn’t change”. The speaker here knows precisely what she is and is not.

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Luckily, that speaker has chosen a role, and knows how to fulfill it whole-heartedly. The powers of observation at work in these poems astound. Consider these opening lines from “Ballard Locks,” in which those aforementioned salmon struggle home:

Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder
upon ladder of them thrashing
through froth, herds of us climb
the cement stair to watch
this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;
so much twisted light
the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles:
more like sequined
purses than fish, champagned explosions
beneath which the ever-moving
smolt fume smacks against glass, churns them up
to lake from sea level, the way,
outside, fishing boats are dropped or raised
in pressured chambers, hoses spraying
the salt-slicked undersides a cleaner clean.

from “Ballard Locks”

Has there ever been a better image for leaping salmon than “sequined / purses”? Than “champagned explosions”? Are salmon now off-limits the way Wallace Stevens made the grackle and blackbird off-limits? Here we see firsthand the pyrotechnic capability of Rekdal’s voice as an expression of her craft and control. The energetic syntax and deliberate lineation contain immense pressure and communicate great beauty; concurrently, the poem develops its narrative aspect. The speaker envisions her young grandfather firing a gun into a seething mass much like the one with which she’s been so enraptured. When a child, in the present, fires a thumb-and-finger gun into the pool, the poem suddenly becomes a meditation on heritage and the hidden cycles that circumscribe our lives: “…there is so little distinction here / between beauty, violence, utility… Bang, the boy repeats. / His finger points and points.”

This masterful balance between the pleasures of language and the complications of tale-telling is literally everywhere throughout Animal Eye, but the volume’s two longest pieces, “Wax” and “Easter in Lisbon”, are the pistons that power the twin-stroke engine this collection really is. Here, we see most concretely that this is not a book of mystery or discovery, but rather one of reflection, rumination, and staggering ambition. These poems report on the worst hurt possible—here directly, there obliquely, but always with an eye to the truth. In these expansive and ranging poems, Rekdal manages to strike a tone that seems exploratory and careful but is always willing to prod a thought further. We feel, at times, that the speaker is ranging from reference to episode in haphazard fashion, discovering connection by accident—but we find the links we hoped were there to be stronger than we could have hoped.

“Wax” is many things: a “Family portrait with French Revolution and cancer” (as the subtitle puts it); a tour through Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum; a Dantean (re-) presentation of the speaker’s personal experience of witnessing a mother undergo treatment for cancer; a developing philosophical treatise on aesthetics, likeness, art, and pain. In Redkal’s telling, Madame Tussaud becomes a kind of curator of lives as they were lived, an acolyte of the live soul. We see her attempts to reconstruct, from scanty evidence, as accurate an impression of the famed dead as possible:

…all Tussaud could take back to reconstruct
cire perdue’s inverse procedures: to coat the wax
on plaster instead, favor the viscous
over molten metal; Tussaud’s uncle, Curtius, taught her,
taking out the little calipers and stylus, looking
at the body and only seeing it, stopping thought
in order to make it spectacle.

The poem harmonizes its narrative materials by juxtaposing—subtly at first, and then with increasingly undeniability—wax as a medium with human blood and flesh, the fallible materials of the body as contrasted with the “body that is better than myself, / that can be burned down, melted, added to, can accrue / new filigree and detail: this one will survive / where the other won’t” .

Likewise, “Easter in Lisbon” combines—in a lovely, light terza rima—a wealth of materials. On a trip taken some sixteen years ago to Portugal, the speaker confronts the myriad ways in which she is dislocated: while she is jaunting abroad, the Rodney King riots consume Los Angeles: “we were the Great North American Failed / Experiment, as one Portuguese student showed / us shyly, shaking out his paper’s translation / at a local café” . At the time, the speaker was traveling with an African-American companion, with whom the “tentacles of affection” seemed to tighten no matter what they do. The speaker contemplates her companion’s heritage, her own mixed heritage, and how these are received by the Portuguese and the Africans (from Morocco) they encounter, until all of it swirls together gorgeously in a serendipitous visit to a decrepit zoo where the animals, including some comical lemurs, amuse, then overwhelm, our eyewitness. In a deadly address to her then-companion, the speaker requests an accounting:

…Tell me about that terrible
zoo you never visited, its bright spray
of lemur bodies running
from their cage to escape into the gray
and fog-drenched city,
this time inciting in their desire
all the other animals to flee…

The poem—indeed, the book—ranges farther, always careful to provide the reader with an accessible narrative and a rich array of flora and fauna to contemplate, all of which serve the larger questions that throb throughout: If we are animals but also much more than that, what simultaneity (if not balance) is possible between those states? What can we glean from observing, keenly, that which we are not? The unsettled, questing speaker of “Easter in Lisbon” continues to cast her eye until she sees two things in tandem: an older couple on a porch, and the magnificent, unlikely sight before them:

a tiger
slipping past them on the walk: its stripes,
against the dark gold hide and white underfur,
like black icicles; its pink mouth glassy, opened wide.
The couple starts, the tiger stalls,
and now they stare at each other, eye
to eye, animals to animal,
struck dumb not by fear of each other
so much as the unlikeliness of it all.

In these moments, then, Rekdal leads us not only toward a contemplation not only of our animal selves—the parts of us that desire, decay, and one day die—but also those distinctly human aspects of us that let us wonder, long afterward, at the fact that we ever existed to begin with.

Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; the hybrid genre, photo-text memoir Intimate; and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, and Animal Eye. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series (2102 and 2013) and various state arts council awards. Her most recent book of poems, Animal Eye, was a finalist for the 2013 Kingsley Tufts Prize, the Balcones Poetry Prize, and was the winner of the 2013 UNT Rilke Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and on National Public Radio among many others.

W. M. Lobko’s poems, interviews, and reviews have appeared in journals such as Hunger Mountain, Kenyon Review, and The Paris-American. Current work appears in Seneca Review and The Literary Review, and new work is forthcoming from Boston Review. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was a semi-finalist for the 92Y / Boston Review “Discovery” Prize. He is a Founding Editor of TUBA, a new review of poetry and art. He studied at the University of Oregon and currently teaches in New York.